The Selfish Gene Goes to War

The Father of Sociobiology Changes His Mind

The Selfish Gene Goes to War

Jim Harrison

  • comments (16)
  • Print

In 1975, Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology. After Wilson came Richard Dawkins, who published a pro-sociobiology book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976. In both books, human habits, motives, and even love come down to the genes. The political consequence of this reductionism? If all that matters are the genes, then what's wrong with one person exploiting another?

Now, let's look at this moment from a Marxist perspective. In the first half of the '70s, we see in the West a decline of social democratic policies (robust welfare system, strong rights for labor) and Keynesian (demand- rather than supply-side) economics; in the second half, we see the spectacular rise of neoliberal governance (deregulation of financial institutions, the weakening of labor power) and Friedmanian (supply- rather than demand-side) economics. Sociobiology and The Selfish Gene, which appear in the middle of this shift, basically place the individual at the center of human social existence. And what is an individual about? Transmitting his or her genes into the future by any means necessary. You can see how this kind of biological thinking fit well with the economic thinking articulated by Milton Friedman and implemented by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the following decade.

The evidence that Wilson and Dawkins were saying the right thing at the right time is found in precisely how they solved a problem that bothered even the father of evolutionary biology, Darwin: Why, if we are such selfish individuals, does altruism exist in the animal world? Furthermore, how could a selfish animal cooperate with other selfish animals to form a stable society? Their answer? A 1963 paper by a biologist named William Hamilton. His theory of kin selection allowed sociobiology to maintain the centrality of the selfish individual within a society cemented by altruism. Hamilton's argument: An animal cooperated with other animals only when it and the other animals shared lots of the same genes. Kin selection soon became the only game in town.

Nearly 40 years later, Wilson has published a book, The Social Conquest of Earth, that rejects kin selection (which means evolution only acts at the level of the individual) as the cornerstone of sociobiology. He has gone to the other side, group selection (evolution only acts on the group). Wilson essentially argues that the disposition (or genes) for altruism must be there first for the steps toward eusociality (true sociality—ants, termites, humans, and so on) to occur. Kin selection has nothing to do with this. Altruistic animals will work with other altruistic animals, and that's that.

But here is my problem with Wilson's book: It's obsessed with war. According to Wilson, once a group has been established, the next step is to go to war with other groups. Also, the more energy a group spends on its form of society, the more violent the group becomes. Wilson sees the violent logic of the group at work in all parts of human society: boardrooms of companies, professional sports, and even in our search for the cure for cancer.

True, Wilson is optimistic about the future of the human race, but it seems he has decentered the selfish individual and replaced it with a warmongering group. This hardly seems like much of an improvement or difference. Much needed today is a theory of sociality that does not predictably draw all of its answers from the old box of "nature, red in tooth and claw." recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.


Comments (16) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
E.O. Wilson and the Knowledge Filter

Outstanding review, Mr. Mudede, and you perfectly nailed it!

Wilson, the pundits would have us believe, is the deepest of thinkers, yet he comes across has consistently superficial.

Wilson falls for the knowledge filter fallacy: examining only some variables or factors, to the exclusion of all variables or factors possible.

Why does chaos so often rule among human events? Why does chaos so often interject itself in global finance?

They who rule, can only do so by injecting and spreading chaos.

Within a small group, one individual spreads dissension, secretly gossiping and turning one against the other, divide and conquer.

Within larger groups, nationally and internationally, chaos is sewn by mass disinformation and propaganda, by this deft political move and that focused assassination. Monies flow from this foundation or that network of foundations; actions occur.

As long as the individual’s attention is focused, or directed, at one data point to the exclusion of all others, all those other data points go unconnected, the knowledge filter is in place.

Chaos rules! Without chaos, the power elite and eventually the economic elite, withers and dies!

When a moronic scumbag like Newt Gingrich refers to the neocon poseur of Wall Street, President Obama, as the most “leftist president” Gingrich fulfills his sleazy and idiotic function.

In Shane Harris’ book, The Watchers, there is a brief mention of Hillary Clinton’s name in conjunction with a Chinese espionage network seeking nuclear secrets, appearing during research by the Information Dominance Center (during the Clinton Administration).

A few years later, during the Bush Administration, Sibel Edmonds’ testimony will name Marc Grossman’s involvement in a network selling thermonuclear warhead secrets to foreign countries. Grossman was a member of Bush’s inner circle and the third guy from the top at the State Department during Bush’s administration.

Still later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appoints Marc Grossman* to a senior position.
A coincidence thread? A highly coincidental thread of events?

Only more investigation would tell, but such investigations will always be derailed, always circumvented.

To the sane, rational person, L. Fletcher Prouty’s explanation of the inner sanctum of reality, behind the curtain of that power elite working at the behest of the economic elite, sounds most depressing and dismally farfetched. Prouty came by his awareness and knowledge gradually over a period of time while working as their lackey, a skilled errand boy.

Prouty’s explanation reads like a repeat of Taylor Caldwell’s long ago article, when she was invited to a Bohemian Grove gathering as a possible recruit.

Caldwell, an author of fiction and a religious conservative, was appalled at the economic elite’s recruitment pitch, as Upton Sinclair had been years earlier when he too was invited to such a gathering; their articles recounting their individual experience, although years apart, would read chillingly alike.

Both Caldwell, the religious conservative, and Upton Sinclair, the ardent progressive, would be filled with revulsion at what they learned --- exactly what L. Fletcher Prouty claimed to be!

*Marc Grossman was attributed with originally leaking Valerie Plame’s covert status, long before there was even a hint her husband would travel to Africa regarding Iraqi WMDs, etc. The only possible reason for Grossman to do so, since Ms. Plame was a supervisor at the CIA’s WMD counter-proliferation division, would be to compromise her operation regarding any investigation into missing nuclear secrets.

Coincidence #1: Hillary Clinton’s name surfaces regarding missing thermonuclear warhead secrets during research undertaken by the Information Dominance Center (whose track record appears far superior to both the CIA and FBI – and several of the FBI’s agents were later found to be severely compromised as they were both having sex with an identified Chinese female agent).

Coincidence #2: Sibel Edmonds, an FBI translator, goes public about political appointees and elected officials involved with selling nuclear secrets to foreign countries, but is legally gagged by the government.

Coincidence #3: Marc Grossman out’s Valerie Plame’s covert status.

Coincidence #4: Sibel Edmonds’ deposition and further interviews, after the gag order lapses under the Obama administration, points to Marc Grossman as one of the culprits.

Coincidence #5: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appoints Marc Grossman to a senior State Department position.

Now that’s a bunch of coincidences.


(Sibel Edmonds’ testimony)

The Watchers, by Shane Harris…
Posted by sgt_doom on May 3, 2012 at 10:38 AM · Report this
HollowMan 2

Sociobiology was not a cultural invention to prop up social and political policies of the late 1970's - rather, the social and political forces already present chose how to read the findings of sociobiologists. The whole point of sociobiology was to look with a critical eye at our desires, behaviors, and moral structures. That much of our behavior is rooted in ancient, indifferent and remorseless instinctual responses is not an argument for giving in to those impulses. The Selfish Gene, and books following, all put a strong focus on the need to rein in these behaviors; that what our selfish genes desire is not only bad for others, but even for ourselves. Sociobiology takes the individual OUT of the center of history, and points out the fundamental role of inherited behaviors, and the conflict genetic urges have with the individuals housing them.

To say "If all that matters are the genes, then what's wrong with one person exploiting another?" is to entirely misunderstand the entire science. A quick study of sociobiology will quickly tell you that genes are only rarely our friends, and then only by chance. The desires of genes are selfish, shortsighted, amoral and profoundly stupid. To know these weaknesses it to be able to combat them, not to celebrate them.

The problem with EO Wilson's current book is not that it does not suit the human desire for a more affirming biology (what we would like does not influence reality over much), but simply that he does not marshal his evidence or arguments well enough. He may be on to something, but nothing so elegant or so well researched as the premise of "The Selfish Gene" is to be found in his newest book.

As to nature, it is not be "red in tooth and claw", as the central debate here (why do individuals risk themselves for others?) shows everyone is well aware. But SELECTION is red in tooth and claw. Genes succeed when others die out. Wilson is right in that any explanation of selection at a level above the gene must rest upon a selective force above the gene, well, selecting - war in this case kills off the less successful, genes and all. That is not a arbitrary choice; it is fundamental to how biology and inheritance work.
Posted by HollowMan on May 6, 2012 at 4:27 AM · Report this
CBSeattle 3
Genes do not have "desires" and so anything that comes after that assumption is irrelevant (i.e. everything Wilson says).
Posted by CBSeattle on May 6, 2012 at 8:22 AM · Report this
HollowMan 4
You cannot make anything said by Wilson irrelevant by pointing out the weakness of the language we are tied to.

Obviously genes are not conscious and have no intentions. But like all physical things, genes interact with their environment in set ways - water "wants" to flow downhill, fire "wants" oxygen, genes "want" to reproduce copies of themselves. There is no controversy regarding this - genes that fall within certain parameters succeed and outcompete genes falling within other parameters. Genes that succeed stick around, genes that fail do not. When we talk about the desires of genes, we are simply using a clumsy language to talk about a known fact - the inheritance of genes IS directed towards certain ends.
Posted by HollowMan on May 6, 2012 at 6:16 PM · Report this
@3- Epigenetics and the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study square pretty well with Wilson. If it helps you to think of gene "expression" and influence on selective pressures rather than "desire," you go right ahead and make that switch.
Posted by Chris Jury on May 7, 2012 at 9:55 AM · Report this
Thanks for the review. In general good account of sociobiology (though it seems -it's hard to tell- that you've misread The Selfish Gene).

One quibble, though (it's kind of a telling one too). You write; "that rejects kin selection (which means evolution only acts at the level of the individual) as the cornerstone of sociobiology. He has gone to the other side, group selection (evolution only acts on the group)."

(emphasis added)

Evolution does not act on individuals. You have conflated o of the mechanisms for evolution (selection) with evolution itself. Populations evolve NOT individuals.
Posted by MikeyC on May 7, 2012 at 10:00 AM · Report this
Thanks for the review. In general good account of sociobiology (though it seems -it's hard to tell- that you've misread The Selfish Gene).

One quibble, though (it's kind of a telling one too). You write;
"....that rejects kin selection (which means evolution only acts at the level of the individual) as the cornerstone of sociobiology. He has gone to the other side, group selection (evolution only acts on the group)."

(emphasis added)

Evolution does not act on individuals. Populations evolve NOT individuals. I know it may seem a small thing, but the distinction is critical to understanding evolution. You have conflated one of the mechanisms for evolution (selection) with evolution itself.
Posted by MikeyC on May 7, 2012 at 10:07 AM · Report this
Mittens Schrodinger 8
And isn't group selection an extension of kin selection? Isn't the "group" made up of kin and those not directly kin, but more related to kin than the "outside" group? So can't you say that group selection and war against the outside group is an extension of the selfish gene doctrine? This question may be making it obvious, but I haven't read the new book. Just the selfish gene, which was mandatory in genetics when I went to school.
Posted by Mittens Schrodinger on May 7, 2012 at 3:37 PM · Report this
er, "Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution," by anarchist Peter Kropotkin, while scientifically flawed from the perspective of 100+ years later, actually kinda does a good job looking at a lot of this stuff.
Posted by nah on May 8, 2012 at 2:41 AM · Report this
It is simply amazing how badly our educational system fails to teach BASIC concepts of biology. Thoughtful people on this site are arguing over concepts analogous to F=ma in physics. We are not discussing string theory here! Most commenters are in error in their understanding of non-controversial biological concepts.

Suggestion - study a simple biology textbook.
Posted by knows a little bio on May 8, 2012 at 7:59 AM · Report this
Sociobiology is similar to the discipline of evolutionary psychology in trying to explain human culture by putative evolutionary events....rather than by culture, history, and individual human interaction itself. The idea of trying to picture how we behave now by inventing fictional cave men and women who existed in a time long long ago is a farce if you look at what sociology brings to the table. However, sociology doesn't have the pseudo-scientific appeal of sociobiology, meaning that it's less sexy. I suspect that in the future there'll be a book like Stephen J. Gould's "Mismeasure of Man" about the Sociobiologists.
Posted by Theoretical on May 8, 2012 at 9:20 AM · Report this
I see what you did there, Mudede. I'm as much a constructivist as you are, but it seems you are recycling ideas here to propose the creation of the capitalist subject precisely in the 80s. Doesn't that sound a bit late to you?
Posted by El Oso Roñoso on May 8, 2012 at 9:37 AM · Report this
Reviewer seems to have one complaint, which is that it does not conclude what he would like it to conclude. I am all for world peace too. But if he wants to reach a conclusion that groups do not inevitably go to war with other groups, he can write his own book. This guy is a world renowned expert. if he concludes something, it may be wrong, but I can not fault him for concluding something I don't like or even something that does not seem quite accurate to me. i have to consider that maybe he 9is right and I am wrong.
Posted by rp on May 8, 2012 at 3:00 PM · Report this
HollowMan 14
What exactly does sociology bring to the table? Sociology is, at root, just observation without any coherent/agreed upon organizing principle or theoretical framework. Culture, history, and individual human interaction obviously play a huge and important role, but sociology really does not understand why or how. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have been far more successful working out the why and how on their side of things (the inherited side) than sociology proper has been with the cultural side. The role of hypothetical cavemen is fairly limited in either practice, for the record.

Also, "The Mismeasure of Man" WAS Gould's attack on sociobiology. Lacking suitable boogeymen in current research, he pulled up research from the past to indicate the study of human biology often leads to racism... as if the study of sociology, politics, psychology and history were not also prone to wildly racist positions in the same time frame he looked at.

Posted by HollowMan on May 9, 2012 at 4:01 AM · Report this
Once again, Mudede, you try and cram everything through the filter of your pre-baked politics. Sociobiology isn't really about 1970s trends in economic policy; beleive it or not, it's a family of hypothosis based on observations in nature that may reflect some light on very basic human instinct, if not complex behavior. You always remind me so much of the religious fundamentalists of my youth; I'm sure Wilson, raised himself southern baptist, would also recognize the type.
Posted by Sa-Spence on May 9, 2012 at 4:57 AM · Report this
Dear Charles,
I am an evolutionary biologist.
You have clearly never read The Selfish Gene or you would not have written this review. You particularly wouldn't have written this line:
"Why, if we are such selfish individuals, does altruism exist in the animal world?"

The Selfish Gene is about gene's that are "selfish" not individuals who are selfish and still is the theoretical basis of most behavioral biology.

There are lots of other science problems with your review. Read an intro to animal behavior.

Posted by Cabusi on May 14, 2012 at 5:43 PM · Report this

Add a comment